Reviewed by Ian Lipke
In this book Wilbur Smith provides his readers with an insight into his own birth as a writer and the genesis of many of his tales that have thrilled so many people over many years. There has always been a swashbuckling tone to Smith’s books. For this he has been heavily criticized and, amid all the tut-tutting, he has had many supporters.
It was with considerable excitement that I began to read his autobiography, which he has called On Leopard Rock. It is not immediately clear why this name was chosen for a place where Smith could conserve animals he had introduced to a sanctuary while helping the native people, nor is it clear why Smith chose these words to be the title of his biography. It matters not.
The biography begins in true Wilbur Smith style: “Africa is ancient, vast, monumental, a country of death and renewal…The grass is sharp and dry, gilded with dust, and I can hear the slow rush of life in the air, in the bushes, in the soil, a mechanical murmur like the stirring of blood with the pulse of my heartbeat” (1). And that is vintage Smith. In a few short sentences he describes the land he loves, he reveals the extent of his love, and he absorbs himself in the land so that the two are intertwined.
His second chapter is a panegyric on the man that was his father. Like Wilbur Smith’s heroes in his many novels, Herbert Smith was larger than life, a “cussed old bastard” with a “soaring, rebellious spirit” (11) who dominated all around him. Within a few short pages we witness the charge of three hungry lions and the indomitable Herbert Smith shooting all three as they charged. It is exciting writing spiced with the mystery of the victor engaged in a wild dance, for reasons easily explained. Why a woman with two young children were camped near a kill that lions – man-eaters at that – would certainly attack is not explained.
The book is replete with tales of hunting, flying, fishing, and near-death experiences. There is much dropping of famous names like Lee Marvin and John Steinbeck. There is the familiar swagger as the biographer consciously models H Rider Haggard and Ernest Hemingway. His telling of the background to each of his tales is thorough, and shows the writer to be most scrupulous about research. That he has been criticised for the overwriting of sex and battle scenes does not worry this man with sales of 120 million copies safely banked.
People will buy his autobiography because, by so doing, they will feel they hold some of the Wilbur Smith magic that is theirs alone. They will not notice the racism and the misogyny just as they did not see these weaknesses in the tales themselves. Wilbur Smith’s attack on personal correctness and the lack of vitality in today’s youth will not have any effect at all. As far as Smith is concerned these attributes of a society he disparages have been made plain, and his attitude is ‘get over it’. Many readers will draw a line that divides Wilbur Smith the writer from Wilbur Smith the cranky old man, and remember him for the rattling good yarns he researched and wrote. It would be unfortunate if reviewers of this biography make little of the anti-apartheid views Smith holds and which he attacks with vigour in this book.
The biography does not require its glowing ancestry to make it interesting. The novels are omnipresent and nurture this memoir. However, the biography does not need the previous work to support it. The style is brash, as is the author. Masculine values are on open display. Although Smith has had three wives (at last count) there is little evidence that he has unearthed a feminine viewpoint let alone understood one. Yet there are examples of love for his fellow man and unashamed love for animals that persuade his readers to forgive his brashness. Like his father before him he is a “cussed old bastard”, but one whose novels have offered joy and surcease of pain over many, many years.
His memoir is recommended reading if only because he has filled a gap in our knowledge banks that was absent until now. An enjoyable, enlightening read.
On Leopard Rock
By Wilbur Smith